Thomas Friedman, the Accidental Environmentalist
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Thomas Friedman argues that sustainable design is patriotic. Will non-choir members be convinced? Posted the next day. As Bourbon Street throbs beneath my hotel room window, it is a little hard to focus on anything else--and in my exhausted... I am assured the floodgates will not open--but the effects of preventing floods here could be devastating in rural areas. If there were flooding here, though, the drinkers below and the convention attendees above would be free to go home, leaving the bouncers, the taxi drivers, the hotel housekeepers, the bartenders, and the amazing musicians here to deal with the consequences. My problems are yours; your problems are yours This is a phenomenon Friedman refers to as IBG or YBG: we can do whatever we please, we think, because in the end either I'll Be Gone or You'll Be Gone. "Our parents built us a world of incredible freedom," he said. By "our parents," he actually means his parents--the steady, duty-driven WWII generation that gave birth to the profligate Baby Boomers. They created this freedom, Friedman says, with sustainable values, but the Baby Boomers somehow ended up practicing situational values: "If the situation allows it, you just do it." Slashing the rainforests for hamburgers, giving mortgages to people who can't afford them, drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico? None of it matters to people with this mindset, because in the end, IBG or YBG. In our current economy, we: Massively underprice risk (e.g., coal power generation is dirt cheap) Privatize the gains (e.g., coal company executives get rich) Socialize the losses (e.g., West Virginia communities pay the price with Black Lung, runoff from mountaintop removal, etc.) OK, I've been reading that list on liberal blogs for at least a decade. What's new here? Wanting justice is immoral? The thing that intrigues me about this way of framing things is that Friedman is using a values-based argument (a position that has been very successfully claimed by the political right) to promote environmentalism (a position that has been very successfully framed by the political right as a leftist issue). I don't really understand how we've gotten to a place where people who speak out for social and environmental justice are considered, by some, immoral, but I'm glad that at least one person who gets respect from both liberals and conservatives is working pretty hard to turn that idea on its head. Friedman can do this more successfully than liberal bloggers because he is a political centrist, and the environment is not his first priority (at least according to his own characterization). His fundamental question is a patriotic and economic one: "How do we get our groove back as a country?" Friedman laid out the five biggest problems in the world right now, and said the U.S. was "abdicating leadership." Energy and natural resource supply and demand Petrodictatorship Global climate change Energy poverty Biodiversity loss One response to this list of problems is what you might call the Bourbon Street approach: "We're cooked! Let's party!" The other is to get to work. The world's five biggest problems have one solution There is something really great about the Big Five, Friedman pointed out. There is a single solution to all of these problems: "Abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons. How cool is that?" (He obviously set up his five problems so that they had renewable energy as a solution, but I think it is more complicated than he made out. You could make a pretty good argument that getting the oil issue out of the Middle East, say, would be a huge step forward but would not solve problems that plagued the region long before anyone cared about petroleum.) What is the response of the U.S. when confronted with this list? I think it's safe to say most of us--including a large subset of political leaders--have taken the Bourbon Street approach. In Washington, D.C. today, Friedman said, they are "taunting the two largest forces on the planet"--the Market and Mother Nature--shouting, "Show me what you got!" Well, says Friedman, "One of these days they will really show us what they've got." With the Great Recession, these two forces got together to send us a message: "This is your warning heart attack." For a lot of people, though, that quadruple bypass apparently wasn't a life changer--probably because they are not the ones suffering. But if they don't start paying attention soon, even they will feel consequences. The country that leads the green revolution "has to be the United States of America," Friedman says. Well, maybe, although if you don't have the initiative to do that, perhaps you don't deserve to be a global leader anymore. Party like it's 1999 My mind goes to the expo floor as Friedman makes fun of the "green revolution" that many industries are pretending to have right now. "BP is beyond petroleum!" he jokes. "Have you ever been to a revolution where nobody got hurt? This is not a revolution: this is a party." How will we be able to tell when the revolution actually hits? First, industry will have to either change or die. Period. Second, the word "green" will disappear. You won't have green buildings: you'll just have buildings, and they will be what we call green today. OK, I'm totally with him up to this point. But what am I supposed to do about it? Friedman intrigues me on this point, because on the one hand he says we can't regulate our way out of this, but on the other hand he quips that we should "Change our leaders--not our light bulbs." (Note: Changing your light bulbs is a good idea too.) If our leaders blow out but can't be removed, what next? He argues that political leaders can't solve these problems, but they do have a crucial role to play: they create the regulatory environment in which innovation can happen. Their job is to require us all to pay the true cost of unsustainable technologies. Then, a miracle happens: solar, wind, and other forms of renewable power will start to look cheap. The best thing of all, he says, is that renewable energies "are not commodities" like oil and coal, whose prices rise with demand. They are "technologies" like cell phones and laptops, whose prices go down with demand. (Time will tell how that plays out. Cars are "technologies" too; I have complete faith that humans will find related commodities to trade once renewable energy is more standard.) "Green is the new red, white, and blue. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise," Friedman says, to great applause. I guess we'll see about that in the next couple of years. Hope from local governance? He concludes by quoting the late Dana Meadows: "We have exactly enough time, starting now." This is more of a tear-jerker for me, but after the tears dry, I wonder if he's really right. He has already told us that Congress failed to take leadership on the true cost of carbon, and that changing our light bulbs doesn't do that much good. So...what's left? What is it we have time for here? To stew in our own juices at the greenwash revolution? Actually, the afternoon session I went to gave me a bit of hope. A lot of local governments are eagerly adopting the as-yet-unfinished International Green Construction Code (IGCC). This is a pretty exciting development, and I'll share more about the IGCC soon. Meanwhile, what do you think of Friedman's take on the "green revolution"? What are your sources of hope? Or are you taking the Bourbon Street approach?